Mine host, post-Covid style

Ye new inne

Fiona Duncan looks forward to post-Covid hospitality

Room Service

I’ve been chatting to some of my pet hoteliers about how the post-lockdown “new normal” might shape up, both for them and for their wary guests.

A few weeks ago, they were gloomy. How can rural hotels operate with social distancing and waiters in masks when they are all about nooks and crannies and conviviality? And more to the point, how can they make any money with far fewer guests at tables spaced out like islands in the Pacific?

But now, as the reopening date for hotels is upon us, I sense a much more positive, can-do approach, both on the part of the hotels and of their guests – who are desperate for a bit of pampering and more than ready for someone else to do the cooking and make the beds after interminable weeks of housework.

Some hoteliers — the larger ones, it has to be said, who have the massive advantage of space compared to ye olde beamed country inn — are positively gung-ho. “The phones have been ringing off the hook,” says Andrew Stembridge, who runs Chewton Glen, in Hampshire.

“We are picking up business from people who can’t travel abroad this summer and from multi-generational families who want to celebrate being together again.”

Fancy a spell at Chewton Glen? You will be met at your car by a staff member in mask and gloves, have your temperature checked (staff will be constantly checked as well) and led directly to your bedroom. The room will have been deep-cleaned by an “electrostatic fogger” worn on the back of a cleaner in full PPE. It sanitises the air, all soft furnishings, bedding and hard surfaces.

Each room is equipped with an ioniser; all moveable touch points, such as magazines, will be missing with the exception of those, such as remote control and the hotel’s digital directory of services, which will be sterilised, in plastic bags.
If you decide to venture downstairs (room service will take on a new importance) you will be able to eat safely in one of the hotel’s three restaurant spaces. “I think”, says Stembridge, “that our more formal, old school approach to service will play into our hands better than for hotels where informality and close contact is usually the order of the day.”

In other words, the slightly sterile, gosh-I’m-a grown-up approach of smart luxury country-house hotels with their acres of space and plentiful separate accommodation will be to their advantage. Chewton Glen’s luxury Treehouses were, needless to say, the first to be booked.

With a slimlined staff how is the barmaid going to dash to the Ladies and Gents between pulling pints?

Smaller places — inns, pubs with rooms, b&bs — are having a harder time seeing their way through. One things is clear: if they do open, they will not make money until they can have a full house and non-residents crowding their tables and propping up their bars again. The 72-page book of guidelines produced by UKHospitality are a minefield for a pub with rooms such as the East End Arms in Hampshire.

“It says we have to clean the loo and all surfaces, handles and so on every time a customer goes there,” says John Illsley, who probably found life much easier when he was bass guitarist of Dire Straits. “We’ll have to operate with a slimlined staff, so how is the barmaid going to dash to the Ladies and Gents between pulling pints?”

Still, there are some ideas that excite John and his wife Steph and having to think creatively, for them and many other hoteliers, is refreshing. Steph has come up with the idea of personalised beer glasses for the regulars (“we have about 50 customers for whom we run a tab and they will have priority in the public bar”) just as in the old days, when regulars kept their own tankards at the inn.

As for the menu, which under the new guidelines should be short, they relish the idea of offering, French style, a menu du jour with just a couple of choices for each course, which will be chalked on a blackboard to dispense with menu cards. Salt and pepper shakers are banned, tables will be covered wipeable plastic cloths, and only one customer at a time will be allowed at the bar (bar stools are out).

Oh, and John will have to replace all his garden furniture because currently tables are fixed to benches and it needs to be wipeable and flexible to allow easy movement. As I say, it’s an expensive business, responding to Covid-19 and many, probably 30 per cent, will go under in the attempt.

And what of the customers? Will they come? Certainly the clientele of Chewton Glen and its ilk are ready to put their trust in their hosts, but for habitués of pubs it’s less certain.

“I honestly think that people will come flocking, even with the staff in masks and gloves,” said John’s daughter. “We are a gregarious species and our clients will want to come back. They understand the new rules and will enjoy themselves as much as they can within them.”

I heartily agreed, but then I bumped into an acquaintance walking her dog on the way home, grey-haired like me. “Would you go to the East End Arms if it reopens in early July?” I asked. “Well, I’d go for a drink in the garden,” she replied, “but you’ll never catch me inside. Someone in the village has actually had coronavirus. I’m not taking that chance.”

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